Wednesday, August 31, 2022

St. Aidan & the Seeds of Renewal Today

Today is the feast of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, who entered into eternal life in AD 651.  He is often called "the Apostle to the English."  His statue on the holy island of Lindisfarne shows him bearing a torch, bringing light to a world mired in spiritual darkness, magic, oppression, and anxiety.  This shows the Church's task and setting remain essentially the same in every age.

Aidan was sent from that other "holy isle" in the Celtic north (Iona) to try and restart a failed mission led by a previous monk. This monk had spoken down to everyone, was of an irascible temper, and seemed to feel that people needed to come to him rather than he going out to them. He also thought that the Gospel could be propagated by spending his time with the "influencers" and powerful in Northumbria rather than with the ordinary folk. As a way of sharing New Life in Christ, it bombed.

Aidan essentially turned this model upside-down -- which is pretty much what authentic Christianity always does to so-called "normal" strategies of human power and invention.

He spoke humbly and with openness, not cloaking himself in arrogance or "know-it-all-ism." He was gentle in manner yet clearly revealing an inner strength and groundedness in kindness and Truth different from the magicians and wizards. He addressed real problems of poverty and slavery rather than consigning everything to unseen forces and talking in airy platitudes.

He walked everywhere (not using horses, then the symbol of power in transit) and spoke with everyone, high or low. This unnerved some of the high-ups in that very stratified society but it immediately struck the common people and opened doors to Aidan's message his predecessor could never have imagined. The results were spectacular. A form of Christianity -- rooted in the culture and practices of that place and time -- grew rapidly and without coercion. Eventually, an entire crop of holy people were produced in the next generation, which is always a sign God's blessing.

Aidan wasn't concerned with building an institution or a success-machine. In this way he differed from many who claim to follow Christ today, where the focus so often goes to the trappings of success and acknowledged achievement rather than true renewal of the person and the world around us.

Renewal of the Church has never really been the point of Christian mission. The Church is Christ's Body and has already been made glorious in Christ's resurrection and ascension, and through the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Church is forever alive, forever victorious over death, forever new. What isn't is the way the Church often goes about its work.

Much of the last century in our country the Church has acted rather like Aidan's failed predecessor: talking down to those outside, hanging out with elites, and being concerned with symbols of power rather than being like Christ in humility and simplicity. Aidan's witness so many centuries ago is memorable because of how it overturned merely human logic with divine love and unexpected freedom. 

What is needed today in the Church is not more relevance and techniques (read: success and control) but more servanthood, listening, and sharing from the treasury not of political/cultural power by ancient and ever-new wisdom -- the wisdom of God. This will, of course, sometimes lead to conflict not only with the "powers that be" but also those who are dedicated to ideologies opposed to the Gospel -- especially those which clothe themselves in "church-talk" while actually being predicated on sin. Yet, such a way of living inevitably attracts those who desire what Jesus, rather than Caesar, has to offer. We must simply be patient, focused, and undistracted in our work.

Such are the seeds of authenticity and simplicity Aidan brought to Northumbria well over one thousand years ago, and these are the seeds of renewal we must tend today.

The Collect for St. Aidan of Lindisfarne

O loving God, you called your servant Aidan from the cloister to re-establish the Christian mission in northern England: Grant that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, August 29, 2022

The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist: Telling the Truth


August 29 is the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. It is a solemn day, with a story well-attested in the Holy Scriptures, long honored by the Church (though only recently recognized by the Episcopal Church, for some reason).

The Holy Forerunner's death is deeply connected to the story of his nativity (June 24) and the his father Zechariah's prophesy in Luke. It is also directly connected to Christ's nativity and our Savior's embodiment of Truth. We encounter the Baptist's significance and ministry each time we pray the Benedictus Dominus Deus at Morning Prayer -- which, depending on which canticle one uses, could be just about each morning.

Throughout the year, John plays a central part in the story of salvation. In Advent he heralds the coming Messiah by calling all to repent and prepare. His baptism of Christ is central to the entire logic and purpose of Epiphanytide. His boldness and proclamation of repentance is recalled again in Lent. His promise that the One he heralds will bring the Holy Spirit with fire binds Advent to Pentecost.

This omnipresence in the Church year mirror's John’s centrality to the Gospel narrative, from the beginning of Mark through the opening of the Book of Acts. His fierce insistence on divine truth and faithfulness in the face of earthly power is a foundation on which Jesus built and upon which the Christian Church’s ministry of prophetic witness flourishes. Because of his utter fidelity to God’s call, he died a martyr’s death – prefiguring Christ's death at the hands of unjust leaders, as well as the countless other who follow in his footsteps to this day.  Indeed, our day has seen the making of a vast number of martyrs, many beheaded in much the same manner as the Blessed Forerunner -- hidden away in dungeon and "secure locations."

John's witness with regard to the interaction of faith and political power speaks to us in especially potent ways today. His uncompromising commitment to telling the truth in the face of overwhelming secular power sets the standard for authentic Christian life -- and shows how weak and hypocritical many in the Church (lay and ordained, then and now) are when dealing with "the powers that be" when the Church becomes enmeshed with the "power of the sword."

When John said to Herod “you cannot have her” with regard to Herod’s liaison with Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip, it was too much. John was just possibly endurable when he was taking on the religious leaders, but here he was crossing the line into the lane where the traffic is fast and unmerciful. Herodias, tired of Herod’s anxious shilly-shallying about John, wanted this meddling holy man dead and found a way to achieve it. Using the occasion of a drunken birthday party, she slyly planted her daughter as dancing bait for Herod’s inebriate lust. Wildly making public promises of largesse, Herod was in her debt…and Herodias's daughter took him down like an experienced hustler takes down a green rube just off the bus from Nowheresville. In the time it took for the music to stop, Herod was in over his head, and John was without his. The message was clear: Don’t get in the way of powerful people when reputation, politics, and personal cred are on the line. This is ever the case.

The portrait of arrogance, privilege, decadence, and drunkenness emerging here is remarkably appropriate to current events. With so many Christians being willing to go along with Herod's "might-makes-right" reasoning, and with nearly idolatrous levels of support given to politicians very much Herod's kin in terms of behavior by many "Christian" leaders as well as the rank-and-file, one could well imagine John the Baptist's head being lopped off with their quiet nod today. He would have to go, you see: he made the base angry.

The teaching potential of this holy day is great. It shows that to confront evil, we need endurance. Sometimes, it seems that evil actually wins; but its victory—like Herodias’s -- is only apparent. In reality, God’s power and truth is finally completely victorious. It survives continual assault as a vision and a desire. God's vision will forever keep popping up, no matter how many are "cancelled" by silencing or decollation. 

What is needed is an ongoing commitment to Gospel justice, even in the face of evil’s awful array of violence, lies, distortion, and corruption. To the last drop, the last moment, the last sentence, St. John the Baptist witnessed to such a commitment. This is why we keep this day.

This day reminds us that by following Jesus Christ as Lord (whom John heralded), we share in this revolutionary ministry of truth-telling. 

If we in the ordinary congregations of the Church take this vocation seriously, maybe even the so-called "leaders" of a heavily-compromised American Christianity follow the Holy Truth-Teller until the day when all lies are exposed and all elites humbled. Then the tragedy of this day will be crowned with true glory. As it is, we journey on in hope and faithfulness.

A Collect for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

God our Father, you called John the Baptist to be the herald of your Son's birth and death. As he gave his life in witness to truth and justice, so may we strive to profess our faith in your Gospel. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.